VIDEO: GOP Presidential Campaign Town Halls Become Lobbyist Theater As Oil Industry Front Group Plants Questions

ThinkProgress and the Des Moines Register have reported on the Iowa Energy Forum, a new oil industry front group designed to manipulate the GOP presidential primary. The group, financed by some of the world’s largest oil companies, sends activists to GOP primary events in Iowa to ask candidates about oil industry priorities, like building the Keystone XL pipeline, opening new land to drilling/fracking, and protecting subsidies to big oil.

ThinkProgress witnessed the Iowa Energy Forum in action on a recent reporting trip. At a local Republican event at the Pizza Ranch buffet, a man affiliated with the group pressed Rick Santorum to commit to supporting the Keystone XL pipeline as another person with the group videotaped the exchange. The same dynamic happened again later that week at a Tea Party event with Herman Cain.

We came across a Youtube account affiliated with the Iowa Energy Forum. In addition to hosting an infomercial from the American Petroleum Institue, the trade association sponsoring the Forum, the channel features videos of astroturfed questions planted with GOP presidential candidates like Cain, Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich. Many of the exchanges appear as authentic dialogue between a candidate and a regular Iowan. However, the questions are part of a well-crafted effort by oil lobbyists steer, and to some extent control, the GOP primary. Watch a compilation of planted questions at town hall events:

Although he is not featured in the video, Iowa Energy Forum staffers have touted the fact that they have spoken with Mitt Romney as well.

Of course, Republican candidates are more than willing participants in the oil industry’s outreach efforts. Some of the oil industry’s lobbyists behind the Iowa Energy Forum effort double as consultants to the Pawlenty campaign. Cain has said that he would literally appoint the CEO of Shell Oil to set oil industry regulations at the EPA. And as ThinkProgress discovered, the American Petroleum Institute maintains an official partnership with Gingrich’s 527 attack group, American Solutions for Winning the Future (ASWF).

A profile of American Petroleum Institute head Jack Gerard sheds light on the purpose of groups like the Iowa Energy Forum. Gerard’s lobbying strategy has focused on boosting the public perception of big oil. Gerard has dedicated millions of dollars worth of ads promoting his industry, but he has also organized fly-ins of African American and Hispanic oil workers, bused in workers to hold large public rallies in pivotal states, and recruited unlikely allies to press his case, including labor unions. He even hired one of the Nature Conservancy’s top officials to help build his pro-oil army.

Gerard’s current strategy in Iowa mimics the coal industry. In 2008, the coal lobby planted questions about “clean coal” in town halls with major candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain.

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